There’s no razor wire or iron bars along the edges of the dingy diner kitchen set that designer Riw Rakkulchon has crafted for Clyde’s, the season opener at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. Still, even in their absence, the quintet of characters we meet in a workroom at the back of a Pennsylvania truck stop are being actively incarcerated here.

The drama by Lynn Nottage, whose work the Triangle has seen in notable productions of Mlima’s Tale, Crumbs from the Table of Joy and the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas Ruined and Sweat, became the most produced new play in the U.S. last year after its pandemic-era Broadway opening was live-streamed worldwide in 2021. Though her script is noticeably uneven, it provides fresh, compelling proof of two things: Some forms of imprisonment are invisible in America, and discerning them isn’t always easy, since the structures that fundamentally circumscribe people’s freedom often look nothing like a jail.

Neither of these are new phenomena. The economics of sharecropping, tilted in favor of wealthy landowners, kept many who’d been prevented from accumulating capital or education in the antebellum South and Southwest effectively immobilized well into the 20th century. And though peonage was ostensibly outlawed in the 1800s, untold factory and mill workers across the country, forced to rent substandard housing from their employers, “owed [their] soul to the company store,” the only place where many could buy provisions, in various forms of debt bondage until the 1940s.

Soon it becomes evident in this present-day tale why seasoned head chef Montrellous cautions his co-workers, “‘Cuz you left prison don’t mean you outta prison.”

He, along with Tish, a sweet, upbeat single parent, and Rafael, a caffeinated Latino line cook who dreams of becoming a sous chef, are parolees struggling to make a new start. Bearing the stigma of the criminal justice system, all have been forced to take lowest-rung employment at the titled eatery, and by now, they’ve learned how hard it is to advance from that point. After Rafael complains that no one “would even look me in the eye” after a two-month job search, Tish concurs: “Ain’t nobody gonna hire us.”

That economic trap enables the abuse they all receive from their boss, Clyde. The well put-together façade she projects (in costume designer Gregory Horton‘s flashy upscale threads) masks a volatile, shrill, and sometimes openly predatory malefactor whose time in prison trained her to be the de facto warden over her employees at the diner, which she now runs on behalf of some very shady backers.

Early on, Clyde snidely rejects the pity she accuses Montrellous of feeding on because “like fossil fuels, it creates pollution.” But the combination of guilt, shame, and calculated cruelty she uses to manipulate (and sometimes terrorize) her captive staff is far more toxic. Clyde’s ideas of managerial support don’t stop at a lit cigarette ground into an untasted new creation Marcellous has created for the struggling diner; they’re also evinced when Rafael reveals a foot-long bruise she’s left along his ribcage.

After Clyde callously dismisses a glowing — and potentially game-changing — restaurant review in a local paper, Marcellous asks why she can’t let them savor a little bit of joy. The venom drips in her response: “‘Cuz y’all know what you’ve done, and you don’t deserve it.”

“We’re a bunch of felons making sandwiches…You’re all losers, felons, fucking criminals,” Clyde spits before threatening to “get a fresh batch of nobodies” to replace them. “And I’ll make sure you go back to whatever hell you came from,” she then adds.

The truest measure of the others’ desperation in this scenario involves the degrees to which they seek salvation, improbably, in the making of sandwiches. Nottage writes Montrellous more as a sensei than a chef. Early on, he’s quoted as saying a sandwich “is your pulpit where you preach the gospel of good eating.” Lines tracing the lineage of a particular entrée back to “a wheat seed cultivated by a farmer thousands of years ago” recall Tassajara Cooking‘s transcendental Buddhist-influenced writings on food.

Still, Nottage overplays a hand that director Melissa Maxwell and actor Samuel Ray Gates as Montrellous cannot save when her shaman chef intones, “This sandwich is my strength. This sandwich is my victory. This sandwich is my freedom.” More than once, descriptions of the head chef seem borrowed from Marvel Comics. In another line it’s likely that no one could believably deliver, Rafael says of Montrellous, “It’s some deep and confusing shit, but realness on a level that I find perplexing and heroic.”

What’s even more disturbing in Nottage’s text? As Clyde’s character remains a dramatically flat, capital-V villain whose main emotional dynamic involves doubling down, the hardened would-be jailkeep veers dangerously close to camp – a problem that Maxwell and gifted actor Tia James cannot fully solve. In the closing scene, the professional hill that Montrellous chooses to (figuratively) die on seems thoroughly contrived; on that basis, the resulting final conflict and resolution, insofar as it goes, is pretty ludicrous, and an anticlimax to what has come before.

Under Maxwell’s direction, actor Saleemah Sharpe sparkles as Tish, and Xavier Reyes brings all the carbonation needed as the irrepressible Rafael. Even if he doesn’t entirely sell his character’s elevated spirituality, Gates finds the warm and avuncular notes for Montrellous. Standout Adam Valentine probes the vulnerability of Jason, the character who ties this work to Nottage’s earlier Pennsylvanian drama, Sweat. Here, he enters as an uncertain, taciturn newcomer, self-branded with White supremacy tattoos, who has a reckoning all his own to deal with.

Food not only connects us to the world; some Buddhists would assert it also defines a part of our karmic debt, as creatures who are only able to continue their own lives through the destruction and consumption of plant and other animal life. Even with its difficulties, Clyde’s investigates the meal that our carceral systems make of their subjects, before it asks one central question: Who – or what – does this misery ultimately feed?

Clyde’s continues through Sunday, September 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.